At first glance, it’s hard not to see the appeal of A24 and Apple TV+’s latest release, Sharper. Watch the trailer, and you’re introduced to a stellar cast who meanders through New York City lying to and stealing from one another in what appears to be a lush caper film. The first line—“Let me give you a piece of advice: If you’re gonna steal, steal a lot”—uttered over Ariana Grande’s intoxicating and fitting “7 Rings,” lays out the movie’s thesis, but also exposes its shortcomings. Stilted dialogue and an unbelievable story blunt Sharper’s self-proclaimed wit.
The film itself opens with a definition of the word “sharper” (it’s a noun meaning “one who lives by their wits”). This style of self-aware faux-intellectualism permeates the movie.
Split into five chapters, each a vignette of one character, the movie criss-crosses chronologically and simultaneously tangles and unravels the mystery of the ultimate con. Even though it jumps around, it’s never hard to follow. Like all the best thrillers, Sharper is a contained story. There are only four main characters, and the action takes place in just a few locations. These choices offset any potential confusion from the nonlinear structure, and the pleasure of easily putting together the pieces of this puzzle is the most well-executed aspect of the story by director Benjamin Caron, who is mostly known for his work in television (he’s directed episodes of Skins, The Crown, Andor, Sherlock, and more).
While each character’s story comes together well, the individual vignettes themselves are, at times, pretty unconvincing. Characters—even the supposed sharpers—behave as if they have suspended all logic, and audiences can spot plot twists from a mile away. It’s hard to believe that a crooked parole officer (Kerry Flanagan) who can haggle over the gray-market value of a used Rolex Submariner can’t spot that it’s a fake. Neither is it credible that a billionaire hedge fund manager who prides himself on his sound judgment would pay off a man who demands three-quarters of a million dollars in cash to stay away the day after he tried to con him.
It doesn’t help that the dialogue is shoddy, and a little pretentious. Cheesy throwaway lines pepper the film: “Stop being my mom, Mom”; “Of course I like him, he’s a billionaire”; “You know I don’t like old men”; “I don’t watch movies, they’re a waste of time”; “I’m gonna take a billion dollars and aim it in your direction”—these are just the tip of the iceberg.
Though they don’t have much to work with, the actors are wonderful. Sebastian Stan oozes nonchalance as con man Max navigating the dual role of both sharper and mark. Julianne Moore seems to be having so much fun playing Madeline, the second wife of billionaire hedge fund manager Richard Hobbes (John Lithgow). Briana Middleton has a standout performance as Sandra, who enters Max’s world of sharping as his protegé without realizing that she may be being played herself. One vignette follows Tom (Justice Smith), a naive bookstore owner and Richard’s son. Smith nimbly conveys the complicated emotions of a person still reconciling with the shock of falling in love with someone who was just trying to rob them.
Another highlight of the film is its sleek cinematography. Tracking shots of characters walking through luxurious apartments and hotel rooms and vivid streetscapes and panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline appear throughout the film, creating a pleasurable viewing experience in between the sometimes-inane dialogue and grounding the overall story.
While Sharper features enough to provide audiences with an aesthetically pleasing experience, its failed attempts at self-awareness and sophistication sour the takeaway if paid too much attention to. It’s the kind of movie only worth watching if you’re willing to play the mark.